In the Blog

Red poppies, white poppies and nonviolence.

November 10th, 2006     by Catherine Hayday     Comments

“But it puts a political slant on the meaning of Remembrance Day and that’s unacceptable in our eyes.”

The origins of the white poppy are with the British Peace Pledge Union (sidebar: it will be a rare post from me that does not include some link back to wikipedia…). Interestingly, the Peace Pledge Union started as an effort exclusive to men, organizing them to send postcards in opposition to war, “countering the idea that only women were involved in the peace movement”.

Wearing a white poppy is, depending on your source, an alternative or a parallel message to the wearing of a red one. Most sources agree however that the white poppy is intended to be a symbol of peace and nonviolence. And many people who wear the white poppy will choose to wear both the red and the white versions, because around this time of year there are people, myself included, who simply want to be clear on exactly what it is we are marking on Remembrance Day.

I don’t wear a red poppy. The Royal Canadian Legion (who have the trademark on the red poppy a whole separate issue) say that the red poppy stands internationally as a symbol of collective reminiscence. On their website they go on to say that the subject of John McCraes poem In Flanders Fields (the inspiration for the red poppy symbol) is the fear of the dead that they will not be remembered. But I remember the annual reading of John McCraes poem from elementary school onwards. And I remember sitting in the gym and hearing that fear, but also hearing this line: Take up our quarrel with the foe. That line to me speaks of a different subject, the one which prompts me to want to wear a white poppy. I am not not wearing a red poppy with any intent to dishonour the dead, but I do want to use this time to question how best we should honour them. We are asked to contemplate the costs of war but not very often the alternatives to it.

The quote above is from The Currents lead-in to this mornings segment on nonviolence. There was a reasonably meaty discussion this morning regarding the use and appropriateness of nonviolence, and its worth listening to. In Part 2, both guests, Mark Kurlansky and Margaret MacMillan, raised a lot of good questions, such as whether nonviolence gives a moral authority; what to do in the face of overwhelming force; when and how nonviolence is effective (and what to do when it isn’t); and how to stop a leader who is bent on war. There was of course no solution reached in the 23 minute segment. But there were a number of assertions that you could chew on for a while on your own, such as Margaret’s comment that nonviolence only works when there is an opinion that can be influenced (e.g. not a violent dictatorship). And Mark’s response to the question “how do you persuade people to use nonviolence when there is such a likelihood that you’ll get hurt?” with “how do you persuade people to go to war?”

I don’t think war is glorious. I think there are moments of incredible and unthinkable bravery and selflessness. I think there are also many moments of incredible and unthinkable atrocity. War is a failure, and there are not many Remembrance Day ceremonies that, to me, explicitly recognize that.

What do you think?

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